By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Residents at 444 East 13th Street have been without cooking gas and hot water for over a month, but, as the rent-stabilized tenants in the building said during a protest on Thursday, that’s not their only concern.
The problems with their gas, they said, are just one of many that tenants see as harassment aimed at driving them out of their long-time homes.
Stephanie Rudolph, an attorney with the Urban Justice Center, represents the tenants and filed a lawsuit on their behalf last Friday, also requesting – and getting — an injunction, which prohibits any contact by the owners.
There are currently nine apartments in the building that are occupied out of 15 and Raphael Toledano, who bought the building at the beginning of this year, has been using relocation specialists who’ve been offering tenants buyouts from $30,000 to $60,000.
Rudolph had also previously sent the management company a cease and desist order on May 15, telling them to stop contacting tenants about surrendering their apartments and she said that not long after, tenants were showered with gifts from the management company with an apology about the lack of gas in the building.
“He offered a bottle of wine and Edible Arrangements with a letter that said Con Edison doesn’t want to turn on the gas,” said 26-year-old resident Cesar Bello, who has been living in the building with his family since 1999. “We call the landlord and they say it’s Con Ed and Con Ed says that it’s the landlord. It’s a back and forth thing and we don’t know what else to do.”
The East Village building failed an integrity test by Con Edison last Friday.
The lack of gas in the building, however, started on April 17, when the utility turned off service because of illegal plumbing work. Con Edison and the Department of Buildings originally came to the building to do an inspection because a tenant contacted the utility about construction that was being done.
DOB documents show that a stop work order was filed on April 17 because the plumbing work was being done without a permit, and the structural stability of the building was affected because of shaking and vibrating from the construction. The documents note that Con Edison shut off the gas on that date because the plumber was installing new piping without a permit.
The DOB inspection additionally found that full height framed partition walls were demolished and plumbing fixtures were removed in two apartments, also without a permit. The integrity test that the building failed last Friday was meant to determine that the building’s gas piping doesn’t leak and Con Edison has said it will return with the DOB to re-inspect once the plumber rectifies the problem and contacts the department. In the meantime, while the landlord is prohibited from contacting residents about buyouts, tenants are still without cooking gas and hot water until the building can pass the inspection.
Tenants gathered outside the front of the building last Thursday on the day before the lawsuit was filed to express their frustrations at the lack of heat and hot water, as well as the other ways in which new landlord Toledano and his agents have allegedly been pushing them to accept buyouts.
Rudolph said that five tenants have accepted buyouts, although she said that she hasn’t been able to get in touch with one of the families and suspects that they have accepted a buyout as well. Bello, who lives in the apartment with his parents, wife and two children, said that he and his family have been offered a $50,000 buyout.
“We don’t want that and told them more than three times, but they keep asking,” he said. “I grew up around here and I’m emotionally attached to this apartment.”
He noted that he and other families in the building have been offered apartments in Stuyvesant Town by the relocation specialists, although CWCapital did not respond to a request for comment on whether or not apartments in Stuy Town had been made available for this purpose.
Regardless, Bello said that the apartments offered started at $2,500 per month, almost twice their current rent of $1,344. Rudolph also noted that the relocation specialists have promised alternative apartments that are rent stabilized that turn out not to be rent stabilized at all.
Newton Hinds, one of the agents for the landlord, was reportedly recorded in a conversation with Bello saying that the owner intends to destroy the building and also accused other tenants of prostitution, mafia activity and drug dealing, and questioned the immigration status of some of the residents.
The lawsuit states that Hinds also told Bello and his family that they would not be receiving a renewal lease because the rents were being raised to market rate even though the apartment is rent stabilized, and he reportedly said that if they did not accept a buyout, they would be evicted without due compensation and the living conditions would become unsustainable.
Rudolph said that the landlord may have been counting on tenants not to know the consequences if the owner doesn’t produce a renewal lease, which are that the landlord then can’t raise the rent at all.
“But tenants don’t always know about that,” she said. “They think that if they don’t sign a lease then they don’t have a right to tenancy. There was a sense (the tenants have of the landlord) that these are low income tenants so they won’t know what their rights are and that their apartments are supposed to be rent regulated.”
Toledano and Goldmark Property Management could not be reached for comment by T&V’s press time.